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IN THE SPIRIT: Christmas reflections in Karlstad

Naomi Dunavan

KARLSTAD, Minn. -- We went over the river and we did see woods, but our destination was not Grandmother's house.

It was Karlstad, a warm and welcoming community 75 miles north and east of East Grand Forks.

Arriving ahead of schedule last Sunday afternoon, my husband, Jim, and I had time to browse the town. I remembered parts of it despite the fact that it had been exactly 12 years and two days since my last visit.

The stars were out by the time we left Karlstad and for much of the ride home I wondered, "Where in the world has Swedish Rice Pudding been all my life?"

It's a part of me now as Everett Englund has shared his recipe!

It was an honor for me to be invited to speak at Bethel Lutheran Church Women's annual Christmas program. Twelve years and two days earlier, I spoke at Karlstad Baptist Church Women's Christmas tea.

Karlstad, with a population of 760, has eight churches. That speaks volumes for the number of people of faith who live in this community.

I like the way they do things in Karlstad. The men are included when the women plan things so that's why Jim accompanied me -- that plus untrustworthy weather.

Bethel is a small Swedish Lutheran congregation consisting mostly of older, very wise and incredibly gracious women and men. Right now, the membership has only three small children so there's no Sunday school on Sunday mornings.

Christmases past

The smiles of Kathryn Nelson and Ann Voth greeted us as we opened the front door. The Christmas tree near the altar with gold ornaments and the strains of Christmas carols by Kathy Englund on the organ fairly airlifted us into the sanctuary. I thought for a moment I had returned to a Christmas of long ago in the country church where I grew up.

After Kathryn gave the welcome we sang, "The Bells of Christmas." What a remarkable melody. The first verse is: "The bells of Christmas chime once more; the heavenly guest is at the door. He comes to earthly dwellings still, with new year gifts of peace, goodwill."

Macyn Lofstrom, a member of Karlstad's First Lutheran Church, beautifully sang, "O Holy Night," and "I Wonder as I Wander." Macyn attends Northland Community College in Thief River Falls.

Whatever her future, I hope she never stops singing.

After Ann Voth read the Christmas story from Luke, it was time for me to speak my piece. Of course I emphasized that the reason for Christmas, first and foremost, is the Nativity of Jesus. I also spoke of the five senses of Christmas: sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. And I told of the school and Sunday school programs I took part in as a youngster reminiscing about the sack of ribbon and chocolate drop candy, the popcorn ball and the red juicy apples we received afterwards.

Among my other themes: my family's Christmas traditions; a gingerbread house former Grand Forks Herald graphics artist Lee Hulteng made for me out of graham crackers, white frosting, green gumdrops and red licorice. Lee said the fragile masterpiece would last a couple years. It's now on its 22nd year and nearly good as new.

I told my listeners of the kingbird and goldfinch nests we have on our Christmas tree each year. The nests came from branches on my family farm. Woven into them are scraps of yellow yarn my mother threw to the wind when making afghans. She hoped birds would find them, and they did.

I also showed old Christmas catalogs we've kept from J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward. All these years later, the 1975 Sears book still contains a list our son, Troy, had written of the things he wanted when he was 10. He asked for the Sea Wolf Submarine, the Spin Welder and "for sure," the Batcycle. He also wanted Batman's sidekick, Robin. And, he had totaled his complete list: $21.04.

Take me back to those days -- please!

Annual pledge

My part of the program ended with us together reciting "The Christmas Pledge," from "Unplug the Christmas Machine," by Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli. It is as follows:

Believing in the beauty and simplicity of Christmas, I commit myself:

1. To remember those people who truly need my gifts.

2. To express my love for family and friends in more direct ways than presents.

3. To rededicate myself to the spiritual growth of family.

4. To examine my holiday activities in light of the true spirit of Christmas.

5. To initiate one act of peacemaking within my sphere of influence.

The Rev. Mitch Tolpingrud spoke a beautiful prayer after an offering was taken for the Care n' Share Pantry and the singing of "Joy to the World," brought the curtain down on the program.

By that time we could smell the coffee and soon Swedish Rice Pudding was melting in my mouth.

Rice pudding

This is apparently a popular dish among Swedes as both Marie Lindstrom and Everett Englund brought it for the potluck we savored. Along with sandwiches and salads, there were Swedish desserts galore. The Swedish Rice Pudding received my blue ribbon.

Everett cooks it in a cast aluminum 5-quart Dutch oven. With a larger kettle, there's less worry about it bubbling over when it boils and also avoids scorching when you boil the milk. Here's the recipe:

1½ cups rice

1 quart water

1 teaspoon salt

1 ½ quarts milk

¾ cup butter

3 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Rinse the rice and put it in the quart of water with the salt. Boil rice until it is almost tender. Drain excess water. Add milk, butter and sugar. Boil for one-half hour with frequent stirring. Add beaten eggs, cream and vanilla and let the mixture come to a boil. Remove from stove, cool and serve warm. It's also very delicious cold.

My family never has had this pudding so I plan to introduce it when everyone is home for Christmas.

Endearing were all the folks we met Karlstad. I mention more names and picture a couple on my blog: Taking part in events such as this adds great merriment to the Christmas season.

"You really fit in," Kathryn Nelson told me later. "You should move here."

Now that's a thought.

Reach Dunavan at Read her blog at